If your rural business includes a high-value sale or a sales process that can take weeks or months, then you’ll quickly realise that trying to keep track of the process on email or a spreadsheet simply doesn’t work.

Likewise, if you're a potential customer, perhaps of a shepherd's hut or you're paying for a wedding you'd expect the seller to get back to you at the right time with the right information that helps you choose the right product at the right price.

See also: A guide to useful business apps

Help is at hand and it doesn't have to be expensive and complicated. A CRM (Customer Relationship Management) programme will keep you on track with an efficient sales process. Just like computerising your accounts, you can now computerise your sales.

What does a CRM do?

This software will help you collect data on your prospects and keep track of the conversations (your relationships) you have had by phone, email or in person, with these potential customers.

It helps you to categorise your contacts into leads, prospects and customers. It keeps all the information in one place and collects the information from your emails or phone conversations. It should also enable you to share that information with other members of your team so that you are all on the same page.

Most CRM programmes follow the same basic premise. They act as a combination of a contact database and a workflow process for each of the deals (e.g. the sale of a shepherd’s hut) or projects that you are working on and they associate each deal to the contacts who are involved in making the decision for that purchase.

See also: Five alternative ways to grow your business

A CRM programme will associate each of those contacts with that one event, and help you keep track throughout your sales process from the very initial enquiry, through qualifying it as a serious lead and converting it into a qualified prospect who is ready to buy, through to the negotiation phase and the signing of the contract, at which point we’d designate them as a Customer.

All those conversations which will crucially involve the pricing and will likely involve a number of different people both at your end and the customers and could take a number of weeks or months to complete. The CRM system will help you keep track of each event, what was agreed and by who.

If set up and used properly, you’ll be able to have a clear picture of each set of customers, and who is at what stage of the sales cycle. The CRM will also prompt you to go back to the relevant party at the right time so that you can confirm the next step towards the sale.

Which CRM is right for me and my business?

There is a huge range of CRM systems available but many you can try for free or even use for free depending on the number of contacts or deals that you are likely to do within a year. Choose a system that will integrate with the email system that you use. This will mean that you can send emails from within the CRM and any replies will come back both to your email and into the record for that customer.

If you work with others who will be speaking to your prospects or customers, make sure that you can have more than one user at a price that suits you.

Your chosen system should provide you with a sales pipeline (or funnel) and many show you this graphically. When you add a new deal, you will attribute a monetary value, a date when you think the deal will be done (close date) and the likelihood of that deal closing on that date. In other words your confidence factor. Once you have a number of likely deals in your pipeline, the software should help you work out your sales forecast by attributing a weighted factor to your sales over the coming months.

On a day-to-day basis the CRM should prompt you to call or email back your prospects on specific dates or times relating to your previous conversations with them. Some CRM systems will send you a daily to-do list reminding you who to call back and which deals are outstanding.

But the most important thing about any CRM system is that you put the information in as you speak to each customer. During or after each call with each customer or prospect you should update the records of what was said, what you committed to do, or what the customer committed to do and when you need to speak again. It sounds simple but without consistently adding the information, your sales process will quickly fall apart. Discipline is key.

See also: Meeting, managing and exceeding customer expectations

With possibly hundreds of conversations each month, you need to know where you are with each relationship. If you get it right the CRM system will be your friend and ensure that your sales grow and grow.

Not convinced you need a CRM? Recent benchmark studies reveal that CRM applications account for:

  • Revenue increases of up to 41% per sales person
  • Decreased sales cycles of over 24%
  • Lead conversion rate improvements of over 300%
  • Customer retention improvements of 27%
  • Decreased sales and marketing costs of 23%
  • Improved profit margins of over 2%
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